From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Sara Eliza Johnson’s first book, Bone Map (2014), was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Meridian, the Best New Poets series, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, two Winter Fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Utah, where she is currently a Ph.D. student in the Literature & Creative Writing program.

Emilia Phillips, 32 Poems Interviews Editor: “The horse lives in my eye without drowning,” you write in “View From the Fence, On Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs.” After reading the poem, I have had to go back to that line several times and reckon with it. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how our visual experience with the world is entirely made up of reflected light, something that is concrete through our translation of its experience but is intangible in that it can’t be held in our hands. In some ways, it makes sense that the horse—or rather the image of the horse—does live in the eye, and the line in a way seems to suggest that we have some sort of perceptive agency over the world. In a time when objectivity is valued in journalism, how does subjectivity compel poetry?

Sara Eliza Johnson: I tend to see the human being as a complex system of intersections, as fluid, so I don’t quite believe in objectivity, but I don’t quite believe in humanistic ideals of subjectivity or consciousness or soul, either. I’m not sure we have any perceptive agency over the world, only that we often think we do, or else wish we did. Writing a poem—playing the “agent” of perception for yourself and others—feels in some sense both an enactment of that wish fulfillment and a reflection of its futility, much as the world we see is “made up of reflected light.” We have no power over the world, or even over language, which so often gets away from us (in ways that sometimes hurt others, for example), but we can manipulate that material to create worlds that seem to live and breathe on their own, conjure alternate futures and histories, new dreams and nightmares; or we can take language apart until it no longer conveys the visible world in any coherent sense. Perhaps poems are “places” (I say that loosely) through which we can explore new physics, new psychophysiologies, new ways of being, and in my own work I like to trouble and complicate vision, to reveal perception as unstable by warping the familiar logic of sight: treating vision as synesthetic, shifting or mixing metaphors, letting association generate intricacies and impossibilities.

I think part of the pleasure of writing for me comes from the psychological push and pull between my desires for agency and escapism. There is pleasure in creating a universe of language that loses you, even erases you, and in which you somehow find yourself oddly and newly alive. The world of Bone Map is an amalgamation of early medieval and folkloric literary spaces. On an intellectual level, I found those spaces compelling lenses through which to view our contemporary condition(s), but I am also intuitively and inexplicably drawn to those spaces, and I wrote poems I wanted to live inside. I constructed the poems not as an engineer or architect would, but as if I were the catalyst for their momentum.

When I was growing up, we used make snowballs at the top of the hill and roll them down, and kept doing so until they were massive. The beginning of the (good) poem for me feels like the first few rolls in the snow to accumulate some weight before letting it go. My (best) poems get away from me, and my own sense of “agency” or power over them and thus in some sense my own vision or perception.

“View from the Fence” is the oldest poem in the book. I wrote it during the second year of my MFA and I remember writing it (where I was, the time of day, that it was raining) because writing it felt like a breakthrough for me, in that it was a poem that got away from me, that I wrote in a kind of partial-fugue state. The early version started with “O,” that familiar lyric incantation — “O, the horses” — which was like the first roll of the snowball, when it is small and frail and somewhat unsure of itself. After the first few lines, the poem seemed to take over, and “I” felt suddenly inside it. I was the poem, and then I wasn’t, yet the poem consumed me as I wrote, and thus in some way I consumed it. So I suppose part of my practice of writing is relinquishing my agency, or else embracing my lack of agency, and letting the text write itself, letting it extract itself from my mind and then rewrite itself back into it. The writing of poetry for me is also an exercise in fluidity, in eroding boundaries between your “self” and the text, your world and the one you are in the process of creating (or destroying), your mind and no mind.

EP: Even if the poems erode the boundaries of self, are there ever poems you return to and think, “I couldn’t possibly have written this!” And is this healthy? Can they still be good poems if you feel distance from them?

SEJ: There are certainly poems in which I frighten myself—that I return to and think that maybe my imagination slipped away from me and took on a life of its own, and that induce that feeling of surprise—which I consider to be an achievement of sorts. The poem in Bone Map that most frightened me to write was probably “Parable of the Flood,” which ends with the speaker kneeling down to be dismembered and repurposed into a boat before the storm—with the reveal that the head would be taken first, as well as the implication of sexual violence. Another that frightens me is actually “Beekeeping,” which draws out a subtler horror (the image that “scythes” through the eye, for example), and one that prefigures the bees that enter the speaker’s ears to “begin their work” inside the body in “Archipelago: Tabula Rasa” (confession: I have a slight phobia of stinging insects and will yelp and flee if one approaches me, so it was especially strange—or maybe not strange at all!—that I allowed myself to get so close to bees, imaginatively speaking).

But I wouldn’t say, exactly, that I feel distance from those poems or others. When I read many of my poems again, they do feel “mine,” especially those in Bone Map, some of which are consciously elegiac, or else emerged from a very personal place. Yet the “I” in the poems does not feel like “me,” but some other entity that has emerged from my subconsciousness, something not quite human but not quite inhuman. The “I” in some ways feels the vessel through which the visual and visceral world funnels itself and thus in in some ways created by its “perception.” Much as that “I” has both human and inhuman qualities, it straddles contemporary and ancient or primal spaces; it’s liminal. Thus, the entity of the “I” is a No Man’s Land, a wilderness in itself, that, in some ways, I have come to see to represent the loneliest and darkest parts of my imagination. So the “I” is not exactly distanced from me, but it is nonetheless an aspect of my person, like the sawed-off (and opened, halved) limb in the poem “Purgatory.”

During my MFA, I read a statement by Lucie Brock-Broido—called “Myself Another Kangaroo Among the Beauties”—in which she features a Dickinson quotation that approaches my feelings on my particular “I”: When I state myself, as Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person. Brock-Broido says she considers herself “the Supposed Person.” I suppose I might amend that to say that I consider my own “I” to be a non-person, amorphousness, assuming the role of a person: a fabular human, or maybe a “person” you meet in a dream.

Whether poems can be “good” if you feel distance from them, I think so! And sometimes I think poems too close to us (to our experience, and/or our sense of identity) can read as navel-gazing or myopic in scope. And, anyway, distance isn’t fixed: some days I feel distance from the work in Bone Map, and some days I feel close to it. It’s somewhat tidal.

EP: I’m glad you mentioned the transformation in “Parable of the Flood” because I wanted to ask you about metamorphosis in your poems. Do you see poems as the perfect lens through which to look at a moment of great—if not cataclysmic—change?

SEJ: I’m so glad that you phrased it that way: “cataclysmic” change. That’s the perfect way to characterize it. I see the poem as a site of metamorphosis, yes, but violently so (in the Ovidian sense): transformation as cataclysm, even apocalypse—as evidence of perpetual and pervasive volatility. It is transformation as the end of a moment, of a state of being, of a world, underlining the instability (and combustibility) of mind and memory and body. I think my poems are invested in the old sublimity, in that sense—that simultaneous experience of pleasure and terror in the face of magnificent force, which alters the mechanisms of the brain, the way we process the world forever after our encounter with it. My own favorite poems (other kinds of art, too) are, as Annie Dillard wrote of the total eclipse she witnessed, like “wave[s] of shadow [that] move 1,800 miles an hour.” I try to treat the poem as a space in which such a sublime miracle could occur. And when we write in lines rather than in paragraphs, it is as if each moment contained within the line becomes epigraph to itself, and the linebreak a force of amputation, a tear in the fabric of the unique reality you are creating. I think poetry is the ideal literary mode to generate a sublime moment because that gap (sometimes void) between one line (or linguistic moment) and another presents the best opportunity to startle us with that instance of cataclysmic change, like the dip in the ocean before an enormous wave rises in front of us.

EP: Damn, Sara, what an evocative metaphorical rendering of poetry’s metamorphic capabilities! I’m especially interested in this idea that a line break is a “force of amputation,” as this image and, indeed, the discussion of the cataclysmic sublime reminds me of a book I’m reading: Joyelle McSweeney’s The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, and Occults (University of Michigan Press, 2015). In “Strange Meetings in the Necropastoral,” McSweeney discusses Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting,” a gory excursion to the battlefield, and says:

Death and Art and the Poet and War and the Corpse and the Landscape wriggle into one another via the properties of the lyric, its digestionlike enjambment; they go on shitting, eating, decapitating each other like so many worms. The poem hosts a strange meeting in the necropastoral, never reaching an end to its necrotic conversions; its amputations; its eructations; its excrementations. . . . thus temporal qualities, “before,” “after,” “during,” and even “event” itself, are also spasmed and distended. So, two questions here. Do you see poetry as kind of composition or decomposition of its subject matter—or, both? With your focus on the cataclysmic sublime, do you believe that your poems play into the (necro-) pastoral tradition?

SEJ: Oh, I’m so happy you brought up the Necropastoral, which is one of my favorite things to think about these days—as one way of thinking about the poem(s) of our particular apocalyptic moment, but also as a way of thinking through my own considerations of the human condition as (always and ever) contagion, virus, violence. Some of the work I’m doing right now is invested in the idea of the human species as a force of violence both upon the earth and itself en masse, as if we are a waking nightmare the planet is having about itself. The inverse of this violence is the Romero-esque zombie most recently adapted for The Walking Dead: the walking human virus that consumes the rest of humanity while simultaneously slowly decomposing into the earth: the human violence finally turning exclusively on itself, allowing the rest of the planet’s living things to evolve beyond us in a vast Exclusion Zone.

I suppose I do generally see the poem as a process of composition and decomposition of language, in the sense that a poem is always “dead” on the page—static, corpse-stiff in its unmovable print—but the dynamic poem, the living poem, the poem wherein words grow from and through each other, still manages to move in all that white silence, to “revive” itself visually, sonically, imagistically (etc.). That, too, is a zombification of sorts: the poem as the living dead.

And yes, I do think my poems work somewhere within the realm of necropastoral imagining(s). I think they have for a long time, in some ways, though I now I think I may write more (self-) consciously toward it, in part because I am so, so enamored by so many of its potential manifestations: the Death-infected poem, the parasitic poem, the poem as permeable, the poem as Exclusion Zone, the “purely” idyllic or pastoral space as an impossibility even for the imagination. And how the Anthropocenic atmosphere, oozing contamination, infects the poem’s material down to the very roots of its language (as it infects our bodies, our organs, right down to the nucleus of the cell). Probably the most “literal” iterations of the Necropastoral in Bone Map are “Deer Rub,” the ending of the poem “Let Us Consider Where We Might Have a Home,” and “Purgatory.”

I recently acquired McSweeney’s new book, too, and I haven’t yet read that first chapter from which you quoted, but I did read “Eye Wound Media” immediately because I am very interested in the relationship between linguistic violence and cinematic violence, and if a poem can ever approximate the moment the eye is sliced open in Un Chien Andalou. I even wrote a tiny homage to Buñuel’s eye in “Beekeeping” (“scythe through the shadows through my eye”)—as for many others, that moment was a visual revelation for me. McSweeney so insightfully writes of it,

Here the cut eye works two ways: the woman’s sliced-open eye collapses, spilling fluid, which fluid is the matter to follow, the stuff of the film. And the watcher’s eye is of course initiated at that moment, vitiated, cut open. The wound of initiation (hymen). The viewer’s vision is changed.

I love this passage because it suggests that a moment of cataclysmic change—both within the poem and within its audience—can be initiated by a rather minute gesture, like a flick of a knife.

EP: If a minute gesture in a poem can initiate a cataclysmic change within the world of the poem, can a poem, a relatively minute gesture in our greater lives, initiate cataclysmic change in the mind and life of a reader? I, at least, hope so.

SEJ: Oh yes, definitely. I think even a small moment (a line, a phrase, an image) in a poem can initiate that kind of metamorphosis. And I think that’s probably true of any art form that asks the audience to engage with the process of its construction, or to invest their own imaginations into the work, to participate in its creation as they explore it and their unique relationship with it. When I think of a “cataclysmic” moment of reading like this for me, I see myself at seventeen, reading Lorde’s poem “Coal” on my bedroom floor. I had decided to buy the book after flipping through it at the local Barnes & Noble one night (the only bookstore we had around that stayed open after 5 p.m.). At that time, I was working through some family-related trauma and very lonely in it; it was a pain I could not quite share with anyone, and that left be feeling isolated and anxious. There was so much I didn’t know about contemporary poetry, but that was the poem (and the book, really) I had been waiting to reveal itself—the poem that found me and showed me what language could do, and which left my brain tingling:

Some words are open

Like a diamond on glass windows

The kind of imaginative movement—a challenging one in its contortion of sense and syntax—that these two lines required my mind to do awoke in me a desire to write beyond the meaning of the words, and beyond narrative, beyond my “literal” experience in the world and language. There was another line in particular that hit me: “There are many kinds of open.” I tried to write a line like that forever, it seemed, because of the inexplicable effect it had had on me at the moment I encountered it. And my love for the line prompted me to seek out more of Lorde’s work and writings, which are, of course, brilliant and gave me more contextual access points for the poem (and in turn highlighted some inevitable and necessary points of inaccessibility for me). I suppose in my experience the key to the cataclysm is the surprise! that pinpricks a hole in your understanding, through which a new understanding begins climb—and grow, if you choose to engage and explore it.

David Tomas Martinez*: Discuss your process for creating an image in a poem. What is your favorite image in all of poetry? All of. Just one.

SEJ: It seems to depend on how I’m working that moment, or on the particular poem I’m writing. I have a difficult time writing “into” a poem through an intellectual idea or conversational cue; an image is typically my entrance into a poem, and the rest of the poem is born from it. To make the first image, the one that starts a poem, I sometimes begin with an evocative group of words and try to feel my way toward a unique confluence. Once the poem starts, I think the process becomes more associative; metaphors are born of metaphors are born of metaphors in an interrelated chain of images (and sometimes that gets too complicated, or over-saturated, and I need to pare back the imagistic layers to find the “real” poem). Images are how I “think” poetically, and sometimes they are exploratory and other times intuitive. Picking a favorite image is obviously very difficult! I wouldn’t say I have a favorite image in all of poetry. What I might say is that I have a favorite inspiring image for each book I’m writing, an image that I will return to again and again as stimulus. The prototypical image for Bone Map is probably Plath’s poppy: “Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth. // A mouth just bloodied.” The prototypical image for Vapor might be Francis Ponge’s sky in “La Mounine” (as translated by Lee Fahnestock): “like the result of an explosion within a sealed chamber of a million blue violet petals.” Such images are anchor images for the work; when I write, I sometimes tap them for fuel.

EP: Now, Sara, provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

SEJ: Pick an animal or plant that you think epitomizes your poetry and/or poetic process. That is, what animal or plant is the best metaphor for your poetics and why?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

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Hustle by David Tomas Martinez Sarabande Books

David Tomas Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Forklift, Ohio, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow, Poetry Daily, Spork Press, Split This Rock, RHINO, Ampersand Review, Caldera Review, Verse Junkies, California Journal of Poetics, Toe Good, and others. DTM has been featured or written about in Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, NPR’s All Things Considered, Poetry, NBC Latino, Buzzfeed, Houstonia Magazine, Houston Art & Culture, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Bull City Press, and Border Voices. Having earned his MFA at San Diego State University, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, an emphasis in poetry, and he is the reviews and interviews editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, after having been a Bread Loaf and CantoMundo Fellow. His debut collection of poetry, Hustle, was released in 2014 by Sarabande Books, which won the New England Book Festival’s prize in poetry, Devil’s Kitchen Reader’s Award, and honorable mention in the Antonio Cisneros Del Moral prize. He is the 2015 winner of the Verlaine Poetry Prize from Inprint.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: At risk of being obvious, I’d like to start with the cover of your book: Hustle, the title, in tattoo-ink script. After reading the book, I started down the path of making thematic associations between the idea of the tattoo and the poems’ approaches to their subject matter, their obsessions. What do you think about the idea that poems themselves tattoo experience onto the poet, maybe even the reader? By writing out of our own experience or, at the very least, out of what we may have witnessed of others’ experiences, do we needle memory into us with a kind of finality, permanence that mere recollection can’t provide? I guess what I’m really asking is, does the poem last when our memories do not?

David Tomas Martinez: I think that is a very appropriate and sonorous image, a tattooing of experience on the poet by the poem, leaving a permanent scar on the brain that is beautiful and unique. And a poet’s poems are the recognizable mark of their existence, their distinguishing traits that others use to identify them. Unfortunately, my decision on the cover of Hustle was much baser and ordinary than your eloquent explanation. Sarabande Books was gracious enough to give me the freedom to express my vision, and I know how rare it is for a press to allow the artist to make creative decisions during production. I wanted my tattoo artist to design the cover because I felt it was only fitting that he also decorate “my other body.” I wanted a different type of cover because I hoped Hustle could be a different type of book of poetry. Part of my goal in writing this book, which was based chiefly on my experiences, was to allow some of the people I grew up with, many who have been silenced by societal and internal forces, to have a voice. I don’t consider myself special because I attended college and wrote a book while others I grew up with were caught in the entrapments of our environment, especially considering some of the charismatic, intelligent characters I grew up beside. As far as your question, I think a poem is a type of permanence, like a tree—a seemingly fixed and static event that is actually moving and changing imperceptivity. I know what it is to stand at the base of a poem, and look up longingly at the branches hoping to climb to the top, just for the view. There are poets and poems that I go back to incessantly, those that their/there meaning or lines are engrained in me. Even if I know their permanence is an illusion, all sorts of reasons can push poems into oblivion; they feel forever to me, especially when nothing is permanent in our society. Memory is fragile.

EP: This slippage, this push toward change reminds of the moment at the beginning of “Motion and Rest” when you write, “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death.” This poem is in paragraphs, unlike the rest of the book. It’s almost a paradox to say that lineation provides a kind of stasis for poetry, particularly across a collection, but I wondered how you thought of the prose poem’s function within the larger collection. Do you feel yourself ever needing to get out of something that “looks” like a poem—let’s say the prose poem, in this case—in order to write a poem?

DTM: The idea of “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death” has dogged me my whole life. First off, we live in a society with puritanical roots extoling all things that exhibit good work ethic. That is part of our unavoidable programming. Both my parents got up and went to work everyday for long hours. Early in the morning, before I or the sun was up, or even me, my father got out of bed, and put on his boots, on and grabbed his tools. My mother kissed me than put on her lipstick before she went out the door. I walked myself to school, and I walked myself home from school. It was a joy to see them come home. For them, it was not joy when they got home but relief. Relief. My father would slip on his shorts and grab a beer, and my mother would begin cooking our dinner. My family was very affectionate, kissing and hugging freely. My father was not afraid to hug or kiss me, or tell me to go grab the belt. This is the experience of many people. My parents did not have to prod me awake to the world; as a child in elementary school, my toes tingled to the world. I wanted to know everything, somewhere along the line that changed. As I grew and began to hear other keys, I started seeing another way of life. A way of stasis—not working but hustling. Chemical dependency. Restrictions incurred by poverty. Disabilities. The things that I had been taught as a child were upturned. People didn’t have to always adhere to the societal norms, or couldn’t. All I had to do was step outside my door, and the stasis was there. But it was in my home too; but I had just never noticed it. I think somewhere around this time I began to be very malleable, as a person. So, Hustle, unintended at first, became a reproduction of my experience and personality. I am at times a bit rebellious in nature, so I wanted my poetry collection to be a bit unconventional. A few people told me that a lyric essay/prose poem couldn’t go in my collection. I never understood why it couldn’t. It was my collection. Now that being said, I can also be strangely anachronistic, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem, and this is something that I try and fight continuously, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem. But that is more just a function of my daily struggle to find balance. I am constantly changing, from hour to hour, filling and emptying various emotions, making a suicide soda of feeling that can’t help but influence my perception of the world, how I experience my day. I also have a tendency to be restless in nature, meditation has been helping with that, and Hustle has a sort of raucous quality that is exhibited in part by the various forms and modes employed through out the collection. My restlessness is also with poetry; often lineation is so difficult to control. A good line is hard to find. This form allowed me to do things that I couldn’t do in a poem. For instance, I was able to tell a small parable in the “legend” section. That was so fun to adopt the voice of such a rich tradition. Sure I could have done that in a poem, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I also thought of it like a sequence in construction, each part informing and supporting the others without linearity. Again my restless spirit.

EP: I’m so glad you put the prose poem/lyric essay in the collection! Were there ever any other things that teachers, readers, or editors told you that you couldn’t do in your work that you later did? I feel like this is a common experience for those who go through workshops. I’ve always felt like that was something we had to get over, to learn to resist. That was part of the workshop: to know when to reject advice. What do you think?

DTM: I have been fortunate to have wonderful teachers and mentors that I supremely respect, and I hope their influence shows in my work. A handful of awesome poets, of various ages and experience are generous enough to read my work and give me keen insights. Sarabande Books was outstanding to work with, giving me freedom artistically to create the book I envisioned. I have been surrounded by the illest my entire career. Or that’s what I remember. I have my memories of cultural, racial, class divides in workshop where I felt excluded because I am not the traditional creative writing student. My parents were working class and not college educated, so my milieu was not filled with fine art, but pop art, if any art at all. That being said, I’m very proud of my upbringing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life. The frustrations and setbacks I have suffered have proved my resilience. I’m proud of my accomplishments and grateful that my missteps weren’t disastrous. After writing strictly in metrical form for two years, I went through an experimental phase, in part, as a reactionary response to the two years I spent writing metrically, as if I could sit myself firmly into contemporary poetry by being the most radical writer instead of the stylistically conservative poet I had been performing as. All this is to say, Emilia, I am one obstinate mofo. I have an idea of the smell and sleekness of a poem, at least the poem I am trying to create at the moment because my idea of a “good” poem is constantly in flux. I try to never successfully recreate this idea of the platonically ideal perfect poem. What a fool’s task. But once in awhile I am saved by someone else’s poem. There is nothing better than reading a poem that I think shouldn’t work but does, often inexplicably. These mysteriously healthy poems only highlight my dysfunctional writing, my broken writing. And that is the conundrum, as fixated and self-involved I can be with my own poems and problems; it is the work of other writers that pushes me on, helps me persist. Early in my career I thought of workshop as a gladiator school, where my goal was to slaughter every other poet, and the professor, with my talent. To be the only poet standing. To survive. I wanted everyone, in any room I stood, to know that I was the most talented writer in the room, so I challenged every other writer and trampled their aesthetics, looking to raise my own banner over their poems. This competitiveness threatened to usurp my personality. At some point, thankfully, I gradually stopped this combative stance. Now I think of every journal or book I read as part of a large workshop, a grand conversation that has, thankfully, saw fit to include me. It’s hard to think of workshop negatively when so many poets are doing so many interesting things.

EP: You know, as I get older, I find myself becoming—and working at becoming—more generous as a reader. I think it’s easy, especially when we first start reading and writing poetry, to hem ourselves in, find a writer or a few writers that appeal to us and focus on how other writing is not the writing we admire. I think thoughtful skepticism is healthy in a reader, but I also think that polarizing aesthetics actually hurts poetry. And we need to do all we can to keep poetry relevant and alive.

I’ve been wanting to get my students to take poetry out of the classroom more and more by doing readings on the sidewalk or posting poems in public places. I’m going to ask my poetry students next semester to do poems in public project. If you were tasked with this project, what would you do? I’d love to share your ideas with my students.

DTM: That’s a beautiful idea you’re employing: love, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, fellowship, and harmony. I wish more people would join your tribe, so much of the news I scroll through feels filled with bile, brimmed with the reactionary fears of xenophobes. That being said, I am afraid of liking too many things in poetry, being inclusive of ideas of shoddy craftsmanship, faulty thinking. I am far from the sweetest chocolate chip in the cookie, but I worry why I like something just as frequently as I worry why I dislike something. That being said, part of my distrust of my predilections can be linked to my affinity to be receptive to so many ideas, which is a sort of refraction of Eliot’s opinion on personality. I have noticed a calcification in my thinking as I have aged in my personal life, but a loosening of my poetic aesthetics, but even then, again, I’m not sure if I just know myself and my motivations and fears better, in my personal life, or am I just becoming more conservative. And granted me becoming more conservative means I have slightly moved closer to the center from being fall-off-the-table to the left. In respect to poetry, I am really making an effort to, like yourself, read poems without trying to impose my aesthetic on them, though I’m not sure if that is possible, so it feels sometimes like I am playing a game of hide and seek with my own shadow.

I have done some poetry projects in the wild, so I have some experiential knowledge to back my answer to this question. I have done some poetry busking, showing up with a typewriter and writing poems by request for free. This experience can be amazing. It challenges me to not edit while I write and to let my words brew unfiltered. It can also be gratifying to write a poem and experience the reader, physically in front of me, actually enjoy the poem. Quite the feeling to see a reader beam with excitement over something you just wrote. However, there are also the people who feel entitled and that you owe them someone, people not respectful of the process or your time. Once, I was busking in a suburb, and a couple wearing socks and sandals, asked for a poem about the summer heat. I asked the couple what particularly about the heat they wanted me to write about, and the husband answered “Just write us a poem, guy.” Shit like this doesn’t sit well with me. So I entitled the poem, “Houston Summer Heat.” The poem consisted on one line, and is the only time I have used an ellipses in a poem. The line read, “Houston summer heat is like…”

I have always wanted to post guerilla poems on prominent American landmarks using projection equipment. Some of the poems could utilize video, but mostly just text on the landmarks. I also have always wanted to wheat paste poems across various cities. Posting tiles inscribed with poems on buildings is also on my bucket list.

EP: (“Houston Summer Heat”!)

You know, the “poetry in the wild” often forces poets to defend poetry. I really like that one article recently that suggested that no one would ever write an op-ed about “Is the symphony dead?” so why keep asking the question “Is poetry dead?” I think that putting too much emphasis on putting poetry in public places in some ways makes it seem or become ephemeral. (Think of ink running down a poem nailed to a telephone pole.) So, I think I’m of a mixed mind about it, too. Plus, I don’t want poetry to seem like visual noise—like billboards. I guess this discussion, in some ways, ends up being about poetry as a vehicle for social activism.

Do you think poetry can be political without politicized? What are the rewards and risks that poets undertake when using poetry for social activism?

DTM: I think that all poems are actively or innately political by their very nature, by being a poem, being an entity of the world about the world, written by something of this world. Poems are carbon based. Even poems that practice an askesis of purely nonpolitical agendas, overtly stating they are not political, are political in my mind. Every person is complicit to the larger body, the larger group, and not engaging in action is as meaningful as engaging. Because I recycle does not make me any less complicit to the ravaging this planet has, and continues to, endure. I think these are very important ideas that we as educated people know, but easily forget. I have to vigilantly attend my privilege as a man, or I will slip back into my training as a man, meaning misogyny and lesser forms of devaluing women. I consider my breathing politicized, especially if you consider the systemic violence to brown and black bodies, historically and contemporaneously. We are all political. That being said, I’m not marching down the street everyday, nor am I looking to free every goldfish from the bondage of the bowl. In poetry, often the larger political agenda forsakes the beauty of the poem, causing the text to go askew, for me. The quickest way to make me take the nearest pole holding the stars and stripes, and plunge into each of my ears repeatedly, is to announce that your reading will be political. This often epitomizes a lack of understanding of the nature of what is political, and by attempting to make a poem political, they often cease caring about the poem and become burdened by a message. Which is fine, all sorts of poems for sorts of audiences. But what does bother me, is poets that hide behind their politics. I think if you’re going to write political poems, or love poems— more power! But a poet must understand that these are difficult tasks, and writing with political subject matter, does not exempt a writer from criticism. Obviously there are sociopolitical angles, gender angles, class angles, and various other complaints and difficulties that arise from my perspective, which I concede; however, I do expect great poetry from my poets. Political or not.

Sarah Blake*: How do you see humor functioning in your poems or poems in general? What’s the most interesting or crucial thing about humor in poetry for you?

DTM: Well thanks, for pinch questioning, Sarah, and great interview BTW, and I really (gold)dig your book, Mr. West. Poetry is hard, man. I just threw shade on poets reaching for the political, and now I’m going toss vitriol at ironic writers who fashion themselves funny. Just jokes.

I think humor in poetry, isn’t as important as the greater function it serves in a poem or book, which is to set tonal variations within an established theme. One easily agreed upon axiom in poetry is Pound’s “make it new,” and while many will argue about what constitutes new in poetry, most would agree that introducing the surprising, the interesting is a way of “making it new.” Being funny is one way of making it new because it surprises the reader, introducing a slight variation in tone. Humor takes intelligence. Poetry takes intelligence. I like intelligence. For me, I lean towards themes that are important to me, thus my poems have a serious tone often, which for a whole poem or book, can make for an arduous read, so I mitigate slogging the reader with doom and gloom by having moments of lightness, brevity from weight of mind through a chuckle. I guess, in the end, what I seem to value the most is balance, a juggling of the heart and the brain. Humor embraces both the intellectual emotional facets of our personalities.

EP: Please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

DTM: Discuss your process for creating an image in a poem. What is your favorite image in all of poetry? All of. Just one.

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

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Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death is the title of her chapbook, forthcoming from Banango Editions. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many […]

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Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace […]

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Brittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the […]

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